Q&A: Building Schools for the Future

In July 2010, Education Secretary Michael Gove controversially axed the national school rebuilding programme for England, established by the Labour government, saying it was wasteful and bureaucratic. The BBC News Website looks at the scheme and the coalition's future plans for school building.

Elm Court School in Lambeth, refurbished under BSF (image: www.clivesherlock.com) BSF schools were supposed to inspire learning
What was Building Schools for the Future?

Dubbed the biggest school building programme since Victorian times, Building Schools for the Future was Labour's £55bn grand plan to rebuild every secondary school in England.

Announced by Tony Blair in 2004, the programme was about much more than replacing classrooms with leaking roofs or buildings with crumbling brickwork. It was about initiating a step-change in children's education.

Not only were pupils to be provided with inspirational buildings that made them feel valued and worthwhile, but they were to be given access to new ways of learning fit for the 21st Century

This involved state of the art computer technology and, as such, required a change from the lay-out of a traditional school.

Instead of sitting in a class, filled with a line of wooden desks facing a teacher firmly ensconced in front of a chalk board, they might perch in wi-fi enabled "learning hubs", using their own laptops to carry out their own independent research.

And for the multi-billion pound investment to be sustainable, the new facilities had to be flexible, as no one could predict what education would be like 50 years ahead.

How did it work?

At first Labour prioritised funds to 14 projects in 17 socially deprived local authorities, in a bid to raise their educational attainment.

These local authorities oversaw the design and building projects in multiple schools with the help of officials from a quango called Partnership for Schools (PFS).

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PDF download Full list of BSF projects and main errors: Check the schools in your area [238KB]

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But a key part of the process was close involvement by staff, governors and pupils in the schools themselves. And as such they needed lots of support.

Schools would come up with a vision of what they wanted to offer and how they would provide it, so decision making on the redevelopments was devolved to the front-line.

Then a private sector partner had to be sought to make the dream a reality and carry out the actual building work.

Once that had happened a local education partnership between the council, the schools and private sector contractors would be set up to deliver the rebuilding.

What were the difficulties?

The problems were numerous. It was not long before the programme slipped from its original time scale.

Within two years, Tony Blair's delivery unit had stepped in to investigate why things were proceeding so slowly and how lessons could be learned.

Firstly, as senior officials in the then Department for Education and Skills pointed out to the Commons select committee, it was always going to be a "very, very big task" to get building started quickly by the councils in the most deprived areas of the country.

This is because these local councils were the ones under the most pressure, with so many more calls on their resources and time than those in wealthier areas.

And the challenge itself was a big one.

Rebuilding numerous schools in an area, sometimes reshaping the educational provision in the process, takes time to plan, prepare and consult upon.

By the end of the second year of the programme, some 72 local authorities had joined the scheme, but only five had reached the position where they could start building.

It was not long before the original targets were labelled "too ambitious", by the then DfES, and scrapped.

Stories emerged about the quality of schools being provided.

The Commission for the Architecture and the Built Environment audited 52 of the 124 schools that had been completed and found that the quality of building and design was "poor" in 16 and "mediocre" in almost half.

And head teachers started revealing just how much of their time these projects were taking up, with extra staff being hired to back-fill for them.

How did things change?

It was when the Conservatives started making political capital out of the scheme, that the then Labour government decided to make some changes.

In January 2007, Schools' Minister Jim Knight defended the scheme but said the lessons must be learned from early mistakes.

His department acknowledged that local authorities in the first three waves of the programme had lacked the management expertise and capacity to oversee such big projects.

So councils bidding for BSF money would have to pass a readiness test, before their proposals were approved.

More support was offered to schools and local councils in the form of the design champions and other experts. These were needed to ensure that schools were involved in the plans in a very real way.

The procurement process was changed to ensure that some of the wastage was cut out at an early stage.

PFS altered the bidding process to narrow down the number of contractors at an earlier stage.

And once a contractor was chosen, they would revamp all the schools in the area, beginning with one or two sample or "pathfinder" schools.

Was it wasteful?

According to Education Secretary Michael Gove, yes, undoubtedly.

When he scrapped the scheme he mocked the level of bureaucracy that accompanied projects.

He said throughout its life, BSF had been characterised by "massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy".

He claimed that, under Partnership for Schools (PfS), the BSF process had nine formal "meta stages", each with a series of sub-stages.

But local authority staff and councillors reworking the education provision in their areas argued that good planning and proper consultation was necessary to ensure that they got things right.

And it is generally thought that changes to the programme did help to ensure that schools built later on were of good quality - and some were considered inspirational.

By June 2010, 178 school rebuilds or refurbishments were complete, with a further 231 in construction or nearly in construction.

And a further 1,100 schools were on their way. Thus far the scheme has cost £5bn.

But the original estimate of the scheme's overall cost was revised upwards by £10bn to £55bn.

However, as the National Audit Office reported in February 2009, the government increased the scope of the programme and building cost inflation has been higher than originally estimated.

Did some schools lose out?

When Mr Gove axed the scheme, about 150 school projects were left in limbo, with a decision still to be made on whether they would proceed.

Mr Gove got into some hot water after he published a list of schools that could proceed with a number of errors on it. This left him having to apologise to council officials.

In the end, some 75 of these schools, mostly academies, were told their developments would go ahead.

What happens to school building projects now?

Mr Gove commissioned a review, headed by Sebastian James of the Dixons group, to look at how school building should be carried out in the future.

The James review - published in April 2011 - recommended new schools be built to "standardised drawings", incorporating the latest thinking on educational requirements.

He said a new central body should be set up to negotiate contracts with the construction industry.

The government has acted on this advice - on 7 June 2011, Mr Gove officially announced the closure of PfS.

PfS will be wound down and its functions transferred to the new Education Funding Agency (EFA), an executive agency of the Department for Education, by April 2012.

The chief executive of the EFA will be Peter Lauener, former chief executive of the Young People's Learning Agency.

The DfE is yet to set out its response to the review.

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